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The second tier: the battle for fifth place
Rich Linde, 1 August 2009

The Dawgs got no respect in the Pac-10 media poll (first place votes in parenthesis) that took place in Los Angeles last Thursday. The middle of the pack is in bold.

Table 1. These pollsters are really imaginative. Note last year's finish: (1) The first four teams; (2) the next four; and (3) the last two. Compare these groupings (or 3 tiers) with the poll.

Media poll for 2009 Conference finish in 2008
1. USC (28)... 316 1. USC, 8-1
2. California (3)... 277 2. Oregon, 7-2
3. Oregon (1)... 250 2. Oregon State, 7-2
4. Oregon State... 216 4. California, 6-3
5. Arizona State... 155 5. Arizona, 5-4
6. Stanford... 150 6. Stanford, 4-5
7. UCLA... 145 6. Arizona State, 4-5
8. Arizona... 142 8. UCLA, 3-6
9. Washington... 74 9. Washington State, 1-8
10. Washington State... 35 10. Washington, 0-9

Okay, okay, I'll go along with the top four teams, that is, the first tier. USC has Joe McKnight and an experienced OL; Cal has all-every thing Jahvid Best, arguably the best runner in the country; Oregon returns Jeremiah Masoli and its inexorable spread; and OSU has the Rogers' brothers and an overachieving coach.

The top four teams and the two last place teams were pretty much agreed upon by these self-anointed pollsters of prevailing wisdom. At least these prognosticators aren’t part of the eastern mafia, although ESPN's Ted Miller, a former UW beat writer, went to school at Richmond and once worked in SEC country. Most of these gurus think they are a physical dimension away (11 dimensions in String Theory now?) from explaining the Big Bang to us mere mortals. ;-) That's a photo of Gil Dobie on the left, not Miller.

The media's penultimate four spots (the four teams just above the last two) are up for grabs. Take a look at the points separating Arizona State, Stanford, UCLA and Arizona, i.e., 142 to 155, a 13 point spread. It’s anybody’s guess as to how these teams will finish relative to one another.

Table 2. The battle for fifth place and the Huskies

Team

What they need to do to break into the top five

Arizona State

Replace Rudy Carpenter; OL needs improvement

Stanford

Pass the ball better and defend the pass better. Redshirt freshman QB Andrew Luck (6-4, 225) needs to come up to speed pronto.

UCLA

Get more efficiency at QB, improve its OL, and make use of a talented recruiting class.

Arizona

Replace Willie Tuitama and fully utilize Gronkowski.

  What the Huskies must do to beat these four teams

Huskies

Run the ball and stop the run against the above. "It’s going to be a physical conference,” Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh has been quoted as saying. “You better be ready to stop the running game. The team that wins the conference championship will be strong, tough guys.”

Washington trails Arizona by 68 points and isn’t in contention for consideration as a member of the second tier, that is, being one of the four teams jockeying for one of the conference’s top-five spots.

Last season, I thought Washington had a chance to break into the middle of the pack and grab a top-five slot, but that was before QB Jake Locker broke his thumb.

Losing Locker, as well as having a lame duck coach, was a bogie too much for the Dawgs to obliterate. But, egad, a 0-12 season?

With a healthy Locker and some luck the Huskies might have beaten BYU, Stanford, WSU and ASU last season. “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas”

How did the Huskies perform last season against this season's second tier teams as projected by the media?

-- The Huskies offense came a cropper against UCLA (135 net yards, TOP=23:08).

-- They trailed ASU by four points going into the fourth quarter and then the defense ran out of gas because of the Huskies’ anemic running game (52 net yards).

-- Against Arizona, TE Rob Gronkowski (6-foot-6, 250) -- a shoo-in for the next level, ugh, make that Groan-kowski from the Dawgs' standpoint -- caught 5 balls for 109 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Huskies were never in the game and posted just 63 net yards rushing.

-- Washington lost to Stanford by a touchdown last season. Locker broke his thumb in the second quarter of that game, in a game – the fourth of the season -- the Huskies might have won it if Jake hadn’t been lost. As it turned out, he was lost for the rest of the season. The Dawgs rushed for 140 yards against the Card's 244 yards.

Last season in conference play, Arizona finished in fifth place. ASU and Stanford were tied for sixth and UCLA finished in eighth place ahead of WSU and UW. (See Table 1). Arizona and ASU were both 2-1 in the second-tier matchups, but Arizona beat ASU to claim the second-tier championship.

Table 3. Arizona, the second-tier champion in 2008

Team Arizona Arizona State Stanford UCLA  
Arizona   W L W 2-1
Arizona State L   W W 2-1
Stanford W L   L 1-2
UCLA L L W   1-2

Do the Huskies have a chance to be competitive against the media's second-tier teams this year? The smart money says no, but my heart says yes.

Beating each team in the penultimate tier is incumbent on the following:

-- The Huskies need to stay relatively healthy – including Locker, of course -- through their first five games, which includes three physical teams: LSU, USC and Notre Dame. The Dawgs are "shorthanded" because of two weak transitional recruiting classes (that is, in 2005 and 2009). If you're into bottom lines, the phrase "lacking depth" sums up the Huskies in a nutshell. 

-- The Huskies need to run the ball and stop the run against each of them. Almost too clichéd to say, ahem.

-- The Huskies have the most athletic quarterback in the conference. It would be a shame not to fully exploit his talents? Why did the Huskies hire a pro-set coach and schedule LSU? (Editor's note: Yeah, Mal, why don't you ask 'Bayou Scott'?) Against these four teams, the Huskies may need to revert back to the spread option at times. (Editor's note: Yeah, Mal, tell that to Sark!). That is, eat some crow if necessary. Locker is a prototype quarterback made for the spread option. The spread helps mask weaknesses in the offensive line -- which could be this season's Achilles heel for the Dawgs. If the Huskies can move the ball using the pro-set, reverting back to the spread becomes a moot point, except, possibly, for the element of surprise.

If the Huskies beat Idaho and WSU, as they are currently favored to do, and post wins against each of second-tier teams, they'll go to a bowl. The odds are long against them, almost as long as Dobie having taken on Dietz in Pullman. (*)

Games against Stanford, ASU and UCLA are on the road; whereas, the Huskies have a good chance to beat Arizona at Husky Stadium. Copping an upset victory over one of the first-tier teams, along with a win over Arizona, and the Huskies could meet their over and under, which the odds makers say is four. This assumes they beat Idaho and WSU.

Anyway, I'm going to fire my editor.

-----------

(*) UW coach Gil Dobie (1908-1916, 58-0-3) didn't want to play WSU anywhere but in Seattle. When WSU balked after doing so for four straight seasons, the series took a two-year break in 1915 and 1916. It's a shame Gil Dobie, photo above, didn't clean William "Lone Star" Dietz's clock back in 1915 and end his quest for the Rose Bowl. Instead, Washington State beat Brown in the 1916 Rose Bowl and laid claim to the mythical national championship -- a sad happening, indeed. ;-)

Richard Linde can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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